CALIFORNIA'S PREMIER BIRD SITE!
THE LOIRE AND LORD OF THE AIR
A few warm spring days in the Touraine and Berry area of western central France were largely given over to elegant chateaux, good food, and a daily quota of wine. But there was some time for birding.
In the little village of Chenonceaux and the vineyards and uphill woods:
Cirl Bunting, the mails with striking black and yellow faces. Serin, little buttery seedeaters flitting across the rows of vines. Linnet, sitting on the fence rows, trilling softly. Up in the deciduous woods Nightingales unseen but loudly proclaiming their territory. Song Thrushes singing long melodic songs made up of a sequence of repeated phrases. Blackcap warblers. Winter Wren. Eurasian Jay. Haunting the woodland were the constant, repetitive "coo-coo" of the Common Cuckoo.
Along the River Cher which ran past the village: Grey Heron, Pied and Gray Wagtail, Common Tern, Green Woodpecker, Common Sandpiper, Common Treecreeper, Chiffchaff, Sand Martin (Bank Swallow), Barn Swallow, House Martin. Best of all: the electric blue European Kingfisher. He's about half the size of our Belted Kingfisher but carries the vivid hue of our Mountain Bluebird.
In the town itself were Great and Blue Tits, Green and Chaffinches, House Sparrows, Dunnock, Mistle Thrush, Eurasian Robins & Blackbirds. Common Swift and common swallows overhead.
In higher elevations where rolling fields stretched as far as the eye could see, Skylarks could be heard, singing from some unseen spot in the heavens. More Linnet here, Common Buzzard in the buteo soar, Common Kestrel kiting over short grass fields, Corn Bunting with its pudgy outline on electrical wires.
But I've been holding out...there were also two of my favourite birds. Our first evening we walked up a little grade and looked back down on the stone buildings of Chenonceaux village, the tallest tower at the Chateau just topping the lush river bottom trees. Then across the low-lying vineyard below our feet, a lone Hoopoe flew and landed in a brushy garden. That was the only Hoopoe we saw the whole trip. And I have to give the Latin name, perhaps the finest one of any bird I know—Upupa epops. That's almost as great as the crested critter it labels. With Montagu's Harrier we had better luck, seeing at least three different birds of this long-winged, svelte looking species.
One morning we drove south toward Nohant in Berry where George Sand lived and died. En route we just happened to have to pass through La Brenne. This is a marshy land of over 1000 lakes, all man-made for fish-farming. Now much of it is nature preserve. Here we found Little Grebe, Greenshank, Water Rail, Reed Warbler, Shoveler, Gadwall, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Stonechat, more Nightingales, Whiskered Tern, Black Tern, Black Kite, Northern Lapwing, Common Whitethroat, Common Coot, Moorhen, Meadow Pipit and Black-winged Stilt nesting in dense flocks. The resident gull was the Black-headed, loud and plentiful on some of the lakes. La Brenne would repay a longer stay of even several days. There were, for example, many woodpeckers drumming in the dense woods which I did not have time to chase. There are Black Woodpeckers here plus all three spotted species and some other less common but present. Despite all this habitat, the only Nuthatch on the whole trip I saw in Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The lone Black Redstart was de-bugging the parking lot at the Blois train station. None on any of the big stone houses we kept seeing, but the chateaux did often have several Pied Wagtails.
The birds that were unavoidable: Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Magpie,
Carrion Crow, Starling, Jackdaw in every town.
I had to go to this heartland of plutocracy for a weekend. The birding was surprisingly good on land and barren at sea. Imagine my surprise in the dry pine gardens (not big enough to be a woods) to spy Crested Tit, a bird very hard to find in the high canopies of Scottish evergreen stands, or in the dense woods of Estonia or Denmark. Here: garden bird, chirping at four paces, eye level. Very nice.
Signing, no, loudly soloing Sardinian Warblers abound as they do all around the dry parts of the Mediterranean coast. Both Crag (pale) and Common Swift, Nightingale in the rose garden dedicated to Princess Grace, and all the usual European town birds like Collared-dove, House Sparrow, Blackbird and Blue Tit. The river bank near the Nice airport was pretty good—Little Egret, Whiskered and Little Tern, Coal Tit and Moorhen—all in fifteen minutes. The resident gull along that stretch of coast: Yellow-legged.
The House Sparrows in that part of France that's almost Italy are very dark of throat, tending toward the Spanish Sparrow end of the spectrum. They don’t have the narrow, discrete black cravat of their English cousins, but most a broad splash of glossy black paint centered on the throat but dripping down the chest a bit.
Last weekend I had a thirty-hour stay in Perthshire, near Crieff. The flat lowland fields were home to breeding Lapwings and Eurasian Oystercatcher. This species is similar to the American Oystercatcher of the Atlantic, pied with black and white plumage, orange beak and a shrill "peep-peep-peep" call as it flies. Also, this oystercatcher is very often an inland bird, not clinging to rocks the way our Black Oystercatcher does on the Pacific Coast. We heard one Eurasian Curlew. One grassy hill had a large colony of nesting Mew Gulls, and Black-headed Gulls commuted inland from a nearby loch. The mixed woodland held many singing Chaffinches, busily working Spotted Flycatchers, Coal Tit, Winter Wren, Song Thrush, Robin, Blackbird, and Bullfinch aptly named with their think beaks and even thicker necks.
About the village and farms: House Sparrows, Pied Wagtails, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Pheasant raised for shooting, Common Buzzard, Jackdaw, Crow, Rook, Magpie, Wood Pigeon (the Collared Dove hasn't made it this far north, yet), Mistle Thrush, Common Whitethroat. There were Mallards and Mute Swan in the river. Looked for Dippers, but dipped there.
Perhaps the best mammal count for a short period since I was in Yellowstone years ago: Roe Deer, the hefty Red Deer, small brown bats in the hundreds in the attic of the house where I stayed—Common Pipistrelle , Brown Hare, Mountain Hare, Common Rabbit. No squirrels.
Lord of the Air
The BBC here is broadcasting live video of spring in England's park and wild lands...and one segment of the program showed a nest of urban Peregrines. So I hied myself over to Baker Street tube station after work, checked out the ugly modern high rise dormitory of College of Westminster...sure enough: male Peregrine brought back a fresh kill to share with the mom and three young ones in the nest. Saw both adults clearly. The young are apparently about ten days old and you can’t yet see them from fifteen stories below.
In 1966 James Fisher (he of the fine Fisher and Peterson book on America's first big year) called the Peregrine a "vanishing bird." It's been a long time since
Peregrines had nested in London and they first were noticed again in 2000. Now there may be several pair in the urban area and this particular nest was used last year and two young were fledged. If you've ever visited Trafalgar Square in the heart of London you know there is almost unlimited food supply. That spot could be re-named Pigeon Plaza.
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